What is the work that trees do? Do they work at all? While news of felling trees and environmental concerns make regular headlines in Delhi, little is known of the many roles these old denizens play in a rapidly transforming city. The grand (or humble) tree often shares a deep symbiotic relationship with roadside vendors, shopkeepers, street children, sweepers, bus travelers where it morphs into a shelter, a shop, a tea stall or a religious shrine. Salil Chaturvedi, Goa-based activist, blogger, poet and author, puts a fascinating spin on the ‘tree economy’ of Delhi. On his blog, he writes,
“There are many takers for the tree – small entrepreneurs, multinational corporates, government departments, housing societies, professionals of all hues, the police, can all be found having some sort of relationship with the tree. So much so that I’ve come to identify many trees not through their species but with the names and professions of the people who are associated with them. So, there is Munnalal’s chaat-bargad, Harish’s samosa-keekar, Jagdish’s mochi-neem, several species in the service of Dr Kapil’s Dog clinic, and so on…”
The team at BlogURK caught up with Chaturvedi for a quick interview.
When and why did you first start the project?
The genesis of the project is a bit of a strange case of life imitating art. I was working on a short story that was about three very young kids—siblings from a slum, aged ten, nine and four years—who decide to run away to Mumbai on a bicycle that belongs to their mother. As they are sneaking out of their jhuggi, Gudiya, the youngest sibling, asks innocently if they can also take ‘Ganju’ along with them. Ganju is a Persian Lilac tree (Melia Azedarach, from the mahogany family), that goes ‘bald’ in the winters and grows near the municipal tap that the children fetch water from every day. Gudiya gets a mouthful from her brother for such a silly proposition, but I sat stunned by Gudiya’s desire to take a tree along with her; characters in a story can surprise you.
In a flash, that question of hers made me look at trees as persons, and gave birth to two tree projects. One was this photographic project titled ‘Working Trees’ and the other is an oral history project titled ‘Tree Memories’ where I record people’s memories about specific trees from their lives. The photography project lasted about a year-and- a-half, though I still take pictures of Working Trees when I am in a city (I have since moved out from a city and live in a semi-rural area in Goa).
So, in a sense you can say that the fecund innocence of a four year old started me off on the project. Another way to say it would be that my Unconscious found a voice through the character.
How do trees, plants contribute to your understanding of cities and urban neighbourhoods?
Urban ecology, I find, does reflect wealth. Well-to- do neighborhoods have more variety of species, exotic species of ornamentals, lush private gardens as well as large public gardens with walkways…all cared for by people from a lower socio-economic background. Poorer areas tend to have wilder, endemic species and weeds. But, during this particular project, it was enlightening to discover a feedback loop—the people who open their shops under trees have quite an intimate relationship with the tree. They end up caring for the tree—many of them begin their day by watering the tree, or light a lamp under it on festive occasions. Many have told me how the tree was planted by the government years ago, but they have taken care of it and nurtured it over the years and taken special care during lean periods and dry spells. So, there is a big service that they do for all of us by helping the tree along. They are quite attached to the trees, pun intended. I feel that the sessile lifestyle of a tree contrasts the motile and uprooted aspects of the lives of the migrant labour who open shop under them, and perhaps softens the blow. The tree is something that they can depend upon. It is their lifeline in a harsh city environment. This connection of the tree with livelihood was an eye-opening aspect of the project. Usually, the tree in an urban setting is viewed from the lens of environmental services such as reducing pollution and bringing temperature down, or providing habitat to birds, insects and small mammals, etc.
Have you shared a deep relationship with a neighbourhood tree? Can you share that story?
The deepest relationship I have had is with a Persian Lilac tree that we had planted in our garden in Noida. It’s a fast growing species and within a couple of years it had grown to about twenty feet. It was fascinating to see something that was thinner than my finger become wider than my torso. Since the tree was in our garden I had the pleasure of watching it at close range in different seasons and at different times of the day—mornings, noons, nights, foggy days, rainy days, winter, summer. Garden lizards, hoopoes, Shikras, spiders, ants, snails, doves, and many other birds made their appearances on it. Over the years a vine climbed up the tree. The leaves and berries it shed went into the garden as mulch. The flowers would gently scent the air and I had a charpoy set under the tree to lie down and observe the goings on in the branches of the tree.
One rainy season, during a storm there was a loud crack and we rushed to the garden to find the tree was down, blocking the door. After the initial shock, we realized that only a part of it had cracked and given way. The tree still remains and though we have moved to another place I do think of it often. I talk to it and when I’m disturbed about something I ask for advice. I also shamelessly ask it to do things for me…the wish-fulfilling aspect of a tree! But, this is exactly what my project Tree Memories explores—the deep relationship that people have had with specific trees in their lives.
In Goa I have also started a photographic tree project that is called GPS Trees. I take pictures of trees that interest me and record their GPS position. Many of the trees I have clicked have either been cut or pruned severely.
Salil Chaturvedi is a writer, poet and a keen observer of the ever-changing world around him, which he captures through photographs from time to time. He is fascinated by the edges and margins of things, whether it is gardens, fields, lakes, cities, history or gender. He believes that the marginal defines the centre and it is in the margins where life is at its most creative. He currently lives on an island in Goa. For more images and details on the project, visit salilchaturvedi.blogspot.in.